DENVER - At first, Gary Hausler's idea sounds like a practical joke.
The Gunnison rancher wants to build an 18-foot-wide water pipeline from the Mississippi River to a hill south of Denver and bring in enough water for millions more people.
But it's no joke. Some state lawmakers are intrigued by the idea.
"Why go to the Mississippi? Because that's where the water is," Hausler told the Legislature's agriculture committees Wednesday.
Hausler has a lot of water in mind - 1 million acre-feet a year, about twice the annual flow of the Dolores River at the Utah border. He has been working on his plan for eight years, but in the last six months or so, people have started listening.
If Colorado doesn't build it, its rapid population growth will continue to dry up farms, he said.
"When I started out, people laughed in my face a lot. That doesn't happen near as much now," Hausler said.
No one was laughing Wednesday morning when Hausler made his pitch to legislators.
"I think we have to look at everything at this point," said Rep. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison.
As chairwoman of the House Agriculture Committee, Curry is one of the most influential lawmakers when it comes to water. Her Senate counterpart, Hesperus Democrat Jim Isgar, also thinks Hausler is on to something.
"I actually started raising this a few years ago myself when we were talking about pump-backs from the Western Slope," Isgar said.
Physically, it would be easier to pump Mississippi water west across the gently sloping plains than east from Western Slope water through the Rocky Mountains, Isgar said.
"I really think it's something worth looking at," Isgar said.
Curry and Isgar are both ranchers, and they've been sweating over the continuing dry-up of agricultural land to accommodate urban growth. A state study predicts Colorado will need an additional 630,000 acre-feet of water by 2030. The state demographer estimates Colorado's population will grow by more than 2 million, to 7.3 million, by 2030.
Hausler's pipeline would provide enough water for 1 million to 2 million households if it were used exclusively by cities.
30-year projectHis numbers are staggering: a 1,200-mile-long system with a 7,000-foot vertical lift; numerous reservoirs and canals; an 18-foot-diameter pipeline; and the equivalent of three new power plants to run the pumps.
Hausler thinks it would take 30 years to permit and build, and he admits it wouldn't do anything to solve short-term water troubles.
He envisions a Central Plains Compact among Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri to set the legal framework for the project.
Water law works differently on the Mississippi, Hausler said Wednesday. It's based not on Colorado's prior appropriation system, but on the Law of Riparian Rights. Basically, he said, anyone is allowed to take water out of the Mississippi as long as people downstream can't prove injury.
The 1 million acre-feet Hausler envisions is within the 1 percent margin of error on the river gauge where he would start the pipeline, he said.
"If I take 1 percent away and they can't even measure it, how can they say I'm damaging it?" Hausler said.
Hausler has not contacted people in the Plains states. A spokesman for Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon did not return a call.
But Dan Sherburne of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment was less than enthusiastic.
"It's something I'm quite sure that governors and legislators ... would have a great objection to," Sherburne said.
He suggested Western states look downstream on the Colorado River, where booming populations demand green lawns, swimming pools and golf courses.
"It never ends. Some people don't want to make changes to where they're living and what they're producing," Sherburne said. "It's not going to work that way forever."
Idea came from ExxonHausler's idea is hardly new. He got the idea, he said, from Exxon engineers in the 1980s, who proposed diverting the Missouri River to Western Colorado for oil-shale production.
Hausler doesn't envision using his pipeline for oil shale, he said. However, the Department of Energy's 2004 Oil Shale Development Roadmap discusses the possible need to import water to Western Colorado to run a future shale industry.
Despite the massive engineering required, Hausler thinks the project could be built with no federal funding because urban water customers would pick up the bill, he said. He predicted a cost of $22,500 per acre-foot.
That's in line with the cost of new water-storage projects on the Front Range today, said Chips Berry, head of the Denver Water Department.
But Berry hasn't seen a formal analysis of Hausler's idea, so he's not sure if the $22,500 cost takes into account everything involved.
In particular, water treatment costs would be high because there's a significant difference between Colorado's high-altitude, snow-fed rivers and the Mississippi meandering through fertilizer-laden farm country.
Nevada eyes Mississippi, tooBerry has heard similar ideas before, including from Pat Mulroy, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority.
He respects Mulroy as one of the nation's best minds on water. While she's never made a formal proposal, she has, at times, approached Berry and said:"Have I got a deal for you. I'm going to bring you all the Mississippi River water you need, and you're going to give me your Colorado River water," Berry said. "The answer is, 'The hell I am.'"
A spokesman for Southern Nevada Water Authority did not return a call.
Hausler is still shopping his idea around. Last week, he had appointments with the staff at Denver Water and the Colorado Water Conservation Board. The next step is a formal study by someone with more authority than a "broken-down old hay farmer" like him, Hausler said.
Denver Water's Berry thinks it's a familiar story.
"The next story is taking icebergs from Antarctica," Berry said. "These things come up every 15 years."